My Theory About Apple's Secret Electric Car Program
By Bill Moore
Speculation and rumor run rampant about an alleged secret electric vehicle program on which Apple, the computer titan, is working, but if the rumors are true, you can pretty well bet it isn't a automobile in the traditional sense: that is so last century!
My Theory About Apple's Secret Electric Car Project
Here's what we know about Apple's supposed secret electric car project.
For starters, the Apple Electric Car company in Florida isn't connected to Apple Computers (AAPL) and their patent is for a swivel mount for golf car displays.
Apple has leased minivans equipped with what appears to be street-level data collection devices: including cameras and possibly LiDAR, the purpose of which seems to be mapping, possibly similar to Google's Streetview. Speculation, however, also suggests it could be for the development of self-driving vehicles.
Apple has hired a surprising number of former automotive executives, designers and engineers, including Johann Jungwirth, Mercedes-Benz former R&D chief and the man responsible for overseeing the Mercedes' self-driving concept car displayed at the 2015 North American International Auto Show in Detroit last month.
Apple has developed the CarPlay in-car infotainment system that connects its i-brand mobile devices to the vehicle. According to Apple CEO Tim Cook, speaking at a Goldman Sachs technology conference recently, CarPlay is one of three new technology platforms launched by Apple in the last year that are 'key to our future.' According to the Financial Times, Ferrari, Daimler, Volvo and Volkswagen are committed to integrate CarPlay into their vehicles.
This much we do know for certain. From here on, however, the consensus of speculation is that the company is doing more than just developing in-car electronics systems: be it CarPlay or autonomous driving vehicles.
From the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times we learn that Apple CEO Tim Cook gave the go ahead more than a year ago to begin developing an electric vehicle, purportedly placing 16-year Apple veteran AND former Ford Motor company engineer, Steve Zadesky in charge, granting him authority to create a secret lab and staff it with hundreds of people from inside and, presumably, outside the company, sparking the widely reported employee poaching war between Apple and Tesla Motors.
The target of the alleged development team is a minivan-styled vehicle. Apple, of course, isn't commenting, so this is just speculation and rumor at this point, but it strongly suggests to me that what the Cupertino computer "Titan" - which also happens to be alleged codename for the electric vehicle project - is working on isn't a private automobile, but something far more forward thinking.
Let me take you back a couple years to the Geneva Auto Show where the Swiss design firm Rinspeed introduced the Micromax electric minivan [see below video]. The idea was to create an on-demand carshare vehicle no bigger than a Mini that could carry multiple riders in the urban environment. Complete with coffee maker and exterior bike rake, it could transport at least four people, including the driver, as well as have space for luggage or a wheelchair. If you watch the video, you'll notice all the Apple products on display from the desktop iMac to the iPad to the iPhone, all of them used to schedule rides in the Micromax.
The one piece missing in the video is the self-driving aspect. In Rinspeed's original iteration, someone had to drive the vehicle. Theoretically, it could be configured to operate autonomously: parking itself over an inductive charger when not in use, driving to a pickup location when fully-charged and back in service. Conceivably, it could do this 24/7.
Let's assume for a moment that Apple is, in fact, thinking outside of the box. A whole passel of trends point to the eventual obsolescence of the personal automobile in the megacities of the future. We've written about this trend extensively here on EV World. What's needed to make public transit work is scheduling flexibility and a broad, inclusive network. It's what I call the fishbone system. Long, lateral 'ribs' out into low-density suburbs that connect to high-density public transit 'backbones', be they commuter rail, light rail, or bus rapid transit (BRT).
A self-driving, autonomous electric shuttle along the lines of the Micromax would be an ideal platform for integration into such a system. Something similar, but again with a dedicated driver is already in use in Helsinki, Finland. Called Kutsuplus (Finnish for 'Call Plus'), the on-demand minibus "lets riders decide on the start and end point," either sharing the journey with others going in the same direction or using it for a private trip. The cost is less than half the price of cab fare. Reports Wired, "Currently, Kutsuplus fares can be paid via smartphone, but soon riders will be able to add a trip to a phone bill via SMS."
Could ApplePay be far behind?
From my perspective, this would be the perfect market for Apple to enter: first of all because there is (1) no competition, and (2) a growing need, especially in the world's increasingly crowded cities. The two biggest obstacles would be taxi driver opposition and liability issues. Detouring around the franchise car dealership minefield that plagues Tesla would also be a plus. Think of the potential markets: airport rental car shuttle services being the first one to leap to mind. A fixed route from the terminal to the rental car lot and back would be an ideal first application. This market alone would translate into thousands of vehicles.
And who'd manufacture them?
Rumor has it that Steve Zadesky has already been in talks with Magna Steyr in Austria. To quote the Financial Times:
"One person close to Apple said Mr Zadesky was making regular trips to Austria in relation to the project."
Coincidentally, Magna Steyr is the company who built Chrysler's Jeep products in Europe and briefly the Voyager minivan at its facility in Graz, Austria. Today the plant produces cars for Mercedes (G-Class), Peugeot (RCS) and Mini (Countryman and Paceman).
It's just over a 7-hour drive via the A9 from Graz, Austria to Zumikon, Switzerland, the home of Rinspeed AG, which is just a few kilometers outside of Zurich. By plane it's a hour and half from Graz to Zurich.
Of course, at this point all is pure speculation and rumor. Apart from unidentified 'insiders' and people supposedly 'knowledgeable of the company', there is little hard evidence that Apple is building any kind of motorized vehicle, be it the once-rumored electric scooter, much less an autonomous paratransit van. But if they are working on an EV, I'd be willing to bet it isn't a traditional automobile like the postulated concept illustration below: that is so last century!
Here's are some additional links to various reports on Apple's supposed electric vehicle project:
Originally published: 16 Feb 2015
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